As gap between Triple A, MLB widens, is the minor league reset fading away? (2024)

TOLEDO, Ohio — A door swung open, and Spencer Torkelson emerged. The No. 1 pick in the 2020 draft stepped out into a gray hallway under fluorescent lighting. He forced a smile.

Despite the fact Torkelson homered 31 times in the major leagues last year, he is here playing with the Toledo Mud Hens instead of the Detroit Tigers, back in the same place he was two years ago.

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Torkelson was not blindsided when the Tigers sent him back to Triple A on June 3. He saw the inevitable approaching with each mounting 0-fer. It seemed especially palpable when the Tigers needed a right-handed pinch-hitter June 2 in the 10th inning against the Boston Red Sox. Rather than turn to their power-hitting first baseman, manager A.J. Hinch instead inserted catcher Jake Rogers. Rogers had a .607 OPS, Torkelson .597. After the game, Torkelson got the call into the manager’s office.

“Definitely kind of saw the writing on the wall when I didn’t pinch-hit,” Torkelson said. “But it’s a results-oriented business.”

Now back in Toledo, Torkelson faces a challenge familiar both to himself and players around the league. In today’s game, where people in the industry constantly harp on the gap between Triple A and the big leagues being wider than ever, how can a struggling player make meaningful improvements? And even if the stint in the minors goes well, how does that player know if the changes will stick — and whether the organization will even trust those numbers, considering the declining reputation of the level?

“It can be a lose-lose for the player,” Hinch said. “If he does well we mitigate that with, ‘Well, it’s Triple A.’ If he doesn’t do well, we hammer him about performance.

“We want it all,” Hinch added. “We want the player to dominate the level that he’s at. But we have to look at it at a deeper level given the gap between the two levels.”

That puts players like Torkelson in a tough position. He has been given the opportunity for a reset. But even that may be treated with suspicion.

In his first 23 games at Triple A, Torkelson hit .261/.355/.435. But Triple-A stat lines rarely tell the whole story. Torkelson, for instance, is working to improve his ability to hit high-end velocity. In Toledo, he is currently hitting .273 against fastballs of 93 mph or higher, an improvement from when he hit just .131 against those pitches and missed a puzzling amount of center-cut fastballs in the majors.

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“I think my swing, my hitting ability, my power plays at any level,” said Torkelson, who was also demoted midway through his 2022 rookie season. “I guess that’s what makes it a little easier to figure it out here with some in-game reps and a lot of cage work. It isn’t really who’s on the mound. When I’m right, I can succeed.”

Torkelson will spend an undetermined amount of time trying to get right in Triple A. But can he really extract value from his time back in the minors? And how can his team know whether he’s actually making progress that will translate to the game’s highest level?

“I think,” Pittsburgh Pirates manager Derek Shelton said, “that’s the thing that everyone’s trying to figure out.”

Cincinnati Reds outfielder Nick Martini is a prototypical journeyman. He reached Triple A for the first time with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2015. He has played at that level every year since, aside from KBO stints in 2020 and 2022. He has witnessed and experienced the changes in the league over that time.

“When I first got there, there were more older guys, maybe more pitchability and stuff,” Martini said. “You’d face guys with six years, seven years (experience) in ’15, ’16. I think now, maybe, it’s more like a prospect-ish league.”

Anecdotally, changes in the sport at the MLB level have also altered the Triple-A game. Because of baseball’s obsession with stuff, older pitchers who hit the corners may be phased out in favor of stuff-heavy prospects. The prospects with the best stuff, though, tend to get to the majors quickly. The net result is fewer MLB-caliber pitchers in Triple A. Roster cuts in the minor leagues may have accelerated this phenomenon.

“You’re still going to see the velocity,” Martini said, “but you might see a couple more over the heart of the plate.”

Given the wide gap between levels, there’s an anecdotal increase in teams being willing to see players make the adjustment at the MLB level, struggles in the interim be damned. The fact young hitters are struggling in the majors is no longer a newsflash. Only six qualifying MLB players age 24 or younger have an OPS above .800. The growing question: What can teams do about it?

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Each club has its own balance. On the Baseball isn’t Boring podcast, Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash framed struggles for young players in the major leagues as a sort of prerequisite.

“I think we, as a Rays organization, have learned the big leagues are tough,” Cash said on the podcast. “It’s challenging. It’s getting better. The separation, the gap between Triple A to the big leagues, I think you could argue is as great as it’s ever been. Sometimes, what we’ve learned is there’s a benefit to getting a guy up with the thought that there’s a chance he goes back down and he’s better for it.”

So then, even if the stats and the physical skills may not be direct translations, is there still benefit in the classic reset?

Nick Gonzales of the Pirates, the seventh pick in the 2020 draft, is among players who have benefited from extended time in Triple A. He spent the bulk of the 2023 season in the minors. After hitting .216 in his first 31 games with the Pirates, he was demoted and later brought back for the final four games of the season.

Gonzales had a strong spring, but the Pirates sent him to Triple A for more seasoning. He posted a 1.039 OPS over 30 games and finally returned to the majors. Through Sunday, he was hitting .280 with a .755 OPS with the Pirates.

“It’s a little bit easier to make those adjustments (in Triple A) rather than it is here, just in terms of the schedule, playing the same team for six days,” Gonzales said. “I think it’s important. I can say from my experience, it helped me.”

Perhaps baseball’s highest-profile reset is playing out right now in Triple-A Norfolk. At the conclusion of spring training, the Baltimore Orioles decided to send No. 1 pick Jackson Holliday to Triple A. Holliday was the No. 1 overall pick who showed all the makings of a future star. He promptly posted a .333/.482/.595 line over his first 10 games in Norfolk.

As gap between Triple A, MLB widens, is the minor league reset fading away? (1)

Jackson Holliday’s first MLB callup didn’t go quite as planned. (Kim Klement Neitzel / USA Today)

At last the Orioles promoted Holliday, and you may know what happened next. Holliday began his major league career 2-for-34 and was demoted to the minors after only 10 games. The Orioles actually pulled the plug on Holliday quicker than many teams have with prospects over the past couple of seasons.

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Back in Triple A, Holliday now has an .895 OPS, but the Orioles are not rushing him back to Baltimore. Teams, perhaps more than ever, are having to dig into underlying numbers and trying to determine what is real and what is not.

“There’s so many more details that get exposed in the big leagues that we try to look at a little deeper when we’re looking at Triple-A players,” Hinch said. “It’s not easy, because we don’t want to create the notion that statistics don’t matter or (how) you perform doesn’t matter, because it does. But it’s not always the end-all, be-all.”

The reasons Triple-A performance does not always translate to the majors are numerous. The most obvious is the talent level. The best players are in the majors. Pitching is always at a premium. The top arms typically spend little time in Triple A and instead vault to the big leagues, where pitching is better than ever and offense is at historic lows.

“Everybody in the big leagues throws 100,” Shelton said. “It’s not that there’s not velocity in Triple-A, it’s just not the amount of velocity there is (in the majors). And, not only velocity of the fastball, but the velocity of the breaking ball. You see multiple guys that throw 90 mph sliders and 92 mph sliders and 88 mph curveballs. Like, it’s a big difference.”

Entering this past weekend, the average velocity for MLB four-seam fastballs and sinkers was 93.9 mph. In Triple A, it is 92.7.

In the major leagues, pitchers throw sliders (including sweepers and slurves) 22.6 percent of the time, at an average of 84.9 mph. In Triple A, sliders are thrown only 17.6 percent, at an average of 83 mph. Drop-offs in the Stuff+ metric tend to be even more stark.

And just as hitters are focusing on underlying factors they hope will get them to the big leagues, pitchers are doing the same. Hitters may not have their weaknesses attacked with the same ruthlessness.

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“The scouting report doesn’t matter,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said. “You’re pitching to develop whatever you need for that guy to make it to the big leagues.”

The minor leagues also shifted schedules before the 2021 season, in part to aid physical recovery and ease the grind of minor-league travel. Teams now play six-game series. Hitters see the same relief pitchers multiple times and even see the same starting pitchers within the span of a week. If familiarity breeds contempt, it also sometimes breeds higher batting averages.

“Six games around against the same pitching staff, at one point, probably the weekends become quite a bit easier,” Cora said.

For those reasons and more, the run-scoring environment is drastically different. In the major leagues, the leaguewide batting average is .242 as opposed to .259 in Triple A. The walk rate in Triple A is 11.1 percent compared to 8 percent in the major leagues.

Some of this may be a product of the pitching. Some of the excess walks could be the unintended consequence of experimentation with the automated strike zone.

“The ABS, it narrows zones down a little bit, which makes it a different ability to hit,” Shelton said. “I think we’re all kind of looking into it. I just think major league arms are so good now that that’s the biggest separator.”

As gap between Triple A, MLB widens, is the minor league reset fading away? (2)

Rob Refsnyder established himself as a big league regular thanks partly to mid-career time in Triple A. (Gerry Angus / Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

Through his age 29 season, Rob Refsnyder had a career 65 OPS+ in the major leagues. He was constantly the 26th or 27th man on major league rosters. He bounced up and down, signed minor-league deals and made the majors with five different clubs. He has 2,079 career plate appearances in Triple A.

Today, he is hitting second or third most nights for the Red Sox.

Having seen all sides of the equation, Refsnyder looks back and credits certain coaches with helping him make tangible improvements. He praised the Minnesota Twins’ player development system and coaches such as Minnesota’s Matt Borgschulte, Texas’ Cody Atkinson and Boston’s Peter Fatse.

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“There’s a lot of things that you can work on if the organization gives you a really good plan,” Refsnyder said. “Like, ‘Hey, like, we want you to drive the ball a bit more. We want you to do this, this and this.’ … Now, there are a lot of people in Triple A that have no idea what they need to work on. But I think it’s a little bit better than when I was going through all that stuff.”

Although Torkelson did not dive into what, if any, tangible adjustments the Tigers want him to make, he is slowly showing better signs in Triple A. He homered twice June 25 against the Louisville Bats, one of them off a 95.2 mph fastball.

“I’ll never be the one to walk in someone’s office and be like, ‘I’m ready. Call me back up,’” Torkelson said. “They have an idea of what they want to see. … The front office makes the final decision. If they believe I’m ready, I’m ready.”

Despite all the data backing every front-office decision, there are still unsolvable mysteries in the player development puzzle.

Torkelson hit 31 home runs last season and seemed on a path to greater improvements.

Refsynder was a relative nobody into his 30s. Now, at 33, he is hitting .322 for the Red Sox. Talent gap or not, Refsnyder knows as well as anyone how unpredictable certain parts of the game remain.

“Anybody who’s so certain it’s going to translate, I call bulls— on it,” Refsnyder said.

— The Athletic’s C. Trent Rosecrans and Chad Jennings contributed to this story.

(Top photo of Torkelson: Duane Burleson / Getty Images)

As gap between Triple A, MLB widens, is the minor league reset fading away? (2024)

FAQs

Do minor league options reset? ›

Once an optioned player has spent at least 20 days in the Minors in a given season, he loses one of his options. Only one Minor League option is used per season, regardless of how many times a player is optioned to and from the Minors over the course of a given season.

What's the difference between minor league and Triple-A? ›

What are the Minor League levels? The levels of MiLB are as follows, starting with the highest level and working down to the lowest: AAA or triple A is the highest MiLB level, and where players are most likely to be called up to the parent Major League team. AA or double A.

Is double AA better than Triple-A? ›

While Triple-A is the highest level in the minor leagues, players may also advance to the major leagues directly from Double-A. For example, within the Toronto Blue Jays organization, 17 position players were promoted from Double-A directly to MLB during 1978–2018; approximately one player every two seasons.

Is Triple-A the best minor league? ›

Triple-A Ball:

The closest level to the majors, Triple-A is filled with all kinds of players. Some are the game's rising stars, although some of the best players can skip Triple-A and move directly from Double-A to the major leagues.

How many times can a player be optioned to Triple-A? ›

Per the current collective bargaining agreement between MLB and the Players Association, effective as of the 2022 season, a player may be optioned to the minor leagues no more than five times in a given season.

How much do Minor League players make when they get called up? ›

If called up to the majors, the minimum salary is $700,000 — which comes to $3,846 for each day in the big leagues. Follow every MLB game: Latest MLB scores, stats, schedules and standings. The minimum salary is $400 weekly at rookie level, $500 at Class A, $600 at Double-A and $700 at Triple-A.

How much do minor league Triple-A players make? ›

How Much Are Minor League Baseball Players Paid In 2024?
Weekly Salaries20192024
Low-A$6,380$26,200
High-A$6,380$27,300
Double-A$7,700$30,250
Triple-A$11,044$35,800
18 more rows
May 8, 2024

Why is a walk called BB? ›

A walk (or base on balls) occurs when a pitcher throws four pitches out of the strike zone, none of which are swung at by the hitter. After refraining from swinging at four pitches out of the zone, the batter is awarded first base. In the scorebook, a walk is denoted by the letters BB.

Is Single-A or Triple-A better? ›

Single-A, formerly known as Class A and sometimes as Low-A, is the fourth-highest level of play in Minor League Baseball in the United States, below Triple-A, Double-A, and High-A.

What does DP mean in baseball? ›

A double play occurs when two offensive players are ruled out within the same play. It's often referred to as "a pitcher's best friend" because it's twice as helpful toward his cause as any given out. Double plays can be made in any number of ways, but the most common form is on a ground ball with a runner on first.

What does PO mean in baseball? ›

While the abbreviation for putout is "PO", baseball scorekeeping typically records the specific manner in which an out was achieved, without explicitly noting which player is awarded the putout for common plays.

How much does a single baseball player make? ›

For rookies, the salary will rise from $4,800 to $19,800. At Low Class A, salaries will grow from $11,000 to $26,200 while High Class A will grow from $13,800 to $27,300. Triple-A players will go from $17,500 to $35,800.

What is the rarest triple play in baseball? ›

Unassisted triple plays

Bill Wambsganss executed an unassisted triple play in the 1920 World Series. The rarest type of triple play, and one of the rarest events of any kind in baseball, is for a single fielder to complete all three outs in one play.

Who is the #1 minor league prospect? ›

Prospect Rankings
RankPlayerTeam
1Jackson HollidayBaltimore Orioles
2James WoodWashington Nationals
3Junior CamineroTampa Bay Rays
4Dylan CrewsWashington Nationals
1 more row

What baseball team has the most triple plays? ›

As the original Washington Senators (1901-1960) they made 20, and ten more since moving to Minnesota (1961-present). Of the present National League teams, the Chicago Cubs have made the most with 40 triple plays. Eleven of these were in the 19th century and 29 from 1901 forward.

How do Minor League options work in baseball? ›

When a player is optioned, it means he is taken off the team's 26-man roster and sent to the Minor Leagues without going through waivers. The player remains on the team's 40-man roster.

How do Minor League deals work? ›

Definition. Players who are on Minor League or split contracts are not fully guaranteed their salaries. A player on a split or Minor League contract will earn the prorated portion of his Major League salary for time spent on the Major League roster.

What happens when a player is out of Minor League options? ›

Once those three option years are over, a player is deemed "out of options." To send the player back to the Minors, a club must first place him on waivers, opening him up to all 29 other organizations.

Are Minor League contracts guaranteed? ›

Conversely, players signed to Minor League contracts must earn a spot on the roster in Spring Training or via an in-season promotion in order to have their contracts guaranteed.

References

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